Rachel Bess on Visceral Beauty and How Marina Abramovic's Art Is Like MMA

What happens in the studio shouldn’t always stay in the studio. Studio Visit Q+A is a weekly series that profiles artists in their studios. We ask them questions, they provide answers, and then we have a nice discussion about their work. This week: Phoenix artist Rachel Bess.

The small, detailed oil paintings of Rachel Bess have an intensity to them. It’s in the darkness of the work’s content and in the amount of time the artist spends crafting each piece. For Bess, the process isn’t as intense as it may seem for the viewer. “It’s pretty meditative to be [painting],” Bess says. “At a certain point when you’ve got it all laid out, you have to get from point A to point B.”

Since her Contemporary Forum Artist Award exhibition at Phoenix Art Museum in May, Bess has been working on new paintings for the Art Miami fair later this year and an upcoming exhibition in 2016 at Lisa Sette Gallery, where she is represented. The new work she’ll display at Lisa Sette is still in progress, but the exhibition will feature portraiture and still lifes that are brought together by a recurring motif: a gemstone.

For Art Miami, she is continuing what she refers to as a side body of work — visceral paintings of rotten fruit. The works resemble still lifes seen throughout art history, but with a macabre twist. Bess has been producing works like these for two or three years now, but the work has transitioned from an exploration of rotting beauty into making direct connections with the human body, aging, and death.

When we visited Bess’ studio, she was nearing completion of a diptych of two sides of a rotting apple. The skin of the apple is slipping down on one side and on the other it’s perfectly flat, holding the form of the surface it sat on. Bess noticed a connection between the apple and what happens to human cadavers. The front of the body is flabby, but when flipped over, the back is as flat as the table. The work is abject, depicting our own decay through the substitution of fruit.

Bess’ process is split up into several small stages. She begins with her source material, most often a staged photograph shot in her studio. Bess approaches these preliminary photographs with attention to detail, so she can get the light just right. She starts the painting with a monochromatic version for the purpose of arranging composition and mapping out value. From here, she begins working on the color layer.

What makes Bess’ work special is that she’s not trying to reinvent oil painting. Instead, she’s focused on staying authentic to herself. Her work is deeply bound in tradition, but she’s willing to take it wherever it wants to go. 

Tell us about your work in haiku format. Tiny, light on dark
Specific moments in time
Impermanence reigns

What artist(s) are you really into right now?
I think Adam Miller is doing some great paintings right now. He posts a lot of process pictures on social media, and I love to see how my process compares to other painters'. I also always enjoy looking at whatever art (or writing) Zak Smith is creating. He has a great eye and I love how all of the ancillary detail informs the complete piece. The painting that is currently on my computer desktop is Samson by Solomon J. Solomon, it's a brilliant painting of struggle and betrayal that is a lesson on composition done by a man with unimaginative parents.

What are you reading?
Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks, Final Exam: A Surgeon's Reflection on Mortality by Pauline Chen, and The Art of He-Man
and the Masters of the Universe
by Tim and Steve Seeley

What's the last TV show, film, or video you watched?

Silicon Valley. It is such a fantastic show. Mike Judge is a gem. I celebrate the guy's entire catalog.

If you could collaborate with any artist, alive or dead, who would it be and why?
I think David Lynch. I love the way he uses film/TV in non-narrative ways, especially because they are such narrative media by nature. His work is much more than just telling a story, the story creates the base for all of the more interesting parts — the characters, motivations, the invented worlds, and how those can inform us about our world, the way that sound and visuals combine, seemingly non-sensical parts that are all purposeful and work towards a feeling or idea. He's an interesting person and I have no idea how we would collaborate, but I would love to do it.

What was the last exhibition you saw and what did you think of it?
An exhibition of indie computer games during Comicon. While many of the games were works in progress and some were beyond my gaming ability, I love seeing where independent gaming is going. Game developers are constantly figuring out new ways to use and interact with the media to create captivating experiences. I think it must be exciting to be a part of something that is changing and advancing so rapidly.

Jeff Koons or Marina Abramovic and why?
My initial response to this was neither. The Koons part of this question just seems like trolling and this recent trend of people staring at Abramovic stare at other people has me baffled. I realize that I am unfairly judging much of her work out of the context of the time in which it was created, that said, a lot it is overly dramatic and makes me feel the same way I feel when I'm watching a poet loudly recite poetry with exaggerated emotion and that "new poet" cadence. Many of Abramovic's performances bordered on self-destruction as shock art, but I do like some of her pieces and enjoy people pushing the limitations of the body. So, I guess for the same reason I enjoy watching gymnastics and MMA fights, I would pick Abramovic.

What's the best advice you've ever received?
Don't let facility get in the way of the painting. Bob Cocke told me that when I was in college. It can be easy to confuse being able to accurately represent an image, and creating a compelling work of art.

What are you currently working on?
A painting of rotting plums.

What's your most valued tool as an artist?
Observation. I spend so much time looking at how light interacts with different surfaces, how flesh behaves in varied circumstances, and trying to figure out why people do certain things. I imagine that observation is every artist's most valued tool — so if you mean something physical that I use to make paintings, I would say the Ampersand gessobord that I paint on. It's archival, and it saves me from having to spend my time layering and sanding coat after coat of gesso onto panels. The tablesaw I run the failures through is also quite valuable.

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